Building bee resilience in the face of changing climate patterns

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This Summer has been downright weird, weather-wise. Which has meant all sorts of things, for all sorts of things. Including for the bees of Milkwood Farm, and the bees of eastern Australia in general.

For the central west of NSW (Where Milkwood Farm is) it’s been a crazy dry Spring/Summer with short downpours, following on from three very wet summers. This means in turn that all the flowering patterns of many trees around us have gone somewhat skewiff, and the bees have had to adapt accordingly.

Our bees - flying strongly, but a honeyflow would be most helpful right now

Our bees – flying strongly, but a honeyflow would be most helpful right now

Tim Malfroy and a box of healthy Warré comb

Tim Malfroy and a box of healthy Warré comb at Milkwood Farm

Eucalypt buds and flowers - just times these by 5 gazillion and you have the whole tree...

Eucalypt buds and flowers – just times these by 5 gazillion and you have the whole tree…

While we’re proactively improving the year-round nectrary of Milkwood Farm to ensure there are things flowering  from early Spring till late Autumn, the bulk of the bees forage is still dependent on the eucalypts.

It’s the eucalypts, with their periodically intense, massive nectar loads, that have made the Australian honeybee population the healthiest and most prolific in the world (that, and the fact that we don’t yet have varroa).

Problem is, the eucalypts are super variable in their flowering patterns. They’re perfectly adapted to the wax and wane of the Australian climate, with our droughts and flooding rains, and therefore work on 2-7 year cycles of flowering, depending on the species.

And if a eucalypt is budding up and getting ready to flower, and then conditions go wonky, no problem.They might hold their buds over till next year and flower then, or drop their buds and put on new growth instead.

Which is all very well for the resilience for the eucalypts, but not for the animals and insects that rely on them for food.

This summer, the eucs around here are sitting on their hands. No show. Some have buds, some not. But there’s none of this flowering business going on. They’re all waiting to see what Autumn brings in terms of weather conditions, before deciding to take a bet on conditions and  flower now, or save their energy, and wait til next year.

The bees are as a result, finding food wherever else they can. Without the intense pollen and nectar loads that the eucs provide, they need to forage far and wide to find the equivalent food stores.

Which is great news for our garden. We’re experiencing super pollination this year. Anything that has a flower is automatically buzzing. Even things like the corn, which are all pollen and no flower (from a bees perspective) are being sought out frantically.

Bees on the corn pollen

Bees on the corn pollen

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But all up, we may or may not get a big harvest of honey this year. One of the techniques of building colony resilience in Warré beekeeping is to aim to only harvest honey from a colony when you are absolutely sure that they will have enough stores left to winter on, without involving artificial feeding of sugar syrup and similar junk food.

Resilient beekeeping is about harvesting the interest and not the capital from a beehive, to ensure a healthy colony no matter how wonky the season. Put the bees first before your need to prove your hives’ are so bountiful they can produce whatever you desire, and they will reward you with super pollination and long-term colony health.

That said, who knows! The manna gums (Eucalyptus viminalis) along the creek and the stringybarks (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) up the hill  look like they could flower any minute. Also, because of this wonky summer, all the acacias are flowering again, out of season (they did that in September already).

So I’m watching the entrance activity of our hives for the sort of behaviors that indicate they’ve found a honeyflow of flowering eucs somewhere beyond the hills i can see, crossing my fingers, and treating our nearly finished store of Warré honey like pure gold (which is how we treat it anyway)… breakfast drizzles only!

Tim Malfroy and natural beekeeping students at a Milkwood Farm course

Tim Malfroy and natural beekeeping students at a Milkwood Farm course, making more beekeepers

Either way, we’ll aim to put the bee colony’s health first before our raging desire for fresh honeycomb and the sticky golden proof that we’re ‘successful’ small-scale beekeepers every season.

Our primary aim is to ensure we have hives of healthy bees buzzing happily each spring after the long winters here, ready to help pollinate our food supply for next year and increase overall abundance on our farm.

>> More posts about bees, resources and adventures in beekeeping

We run in-depth Natural Beekeeping courses in Sydney and at Milkwood Farm… want to join us and the bees in creating more beekeepers committed to resilient beekeeping for the future?

9 Comments

  1. ClaireS
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink | Reply

    So what are the signs that they have found a good honey flow?

  2. Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink | Reply

    Kirsten, a great post! So good to see how you care for your bees, putting their welfare before your desire to slather your toast in honey!

  3. Posted February 26, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Kirsten
    It’s been a tough summer for bees down here in southern Vic as well. Our bees have been setting off for the golf course (I think) every morning at first light. Not to get a round in before the geriatrics (sorry, veteran golfers) arrive, but to get into the well-watered eucalypts which have been flowering nicely. We’re having our first good rain since November right now (30 mm and rising), so hopefully that will mean more good forage before winter.
    After the good rain last winter there were swarms everywhere. Wonder how many of those new colonies will make it through this winter.

  4. Toni Warden
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Great article – that is exactly how we manage our bee hive. I was also wondering whether we need to be taking into consideration the over proliferation of bee keeping and whether that is having an affect on available foods supply for bee colonies. After all, the environment can only throw up so much food and as we humans know, that doesn’t go so well with over population. We deliberately keep our bee hive down to two supers, conscious of the fact that any more and we would have an impact on food for other bees – especially our native bees in the area.

    • Posted February 26, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Toni, I’ve often wondered about European honey bees displacing native pollinators too.

      I don’t think this is as much of an issue in our suburbs, full of flowering exotics, as it might be in bush areas. Also, as far as I can tell, blue banded bees and other native pollinators seem to co-exist quite nicely in our garden with a very active honey bee hive. Bees don’t seem to be territorial over forage.

      There’s the issue of feral bee colonies competing with native birds and mammals for tree hollows. That might be more important.

      However, I’m not sure how keeping your hive small is going to keep the population down. Surely this is just putting pressure on the bees to swarm – and thus proliferate? Then you might find yourself having to adopt a high-intervention, frequent inspection hive management regime to prevent swarming, and that’s bad for the health of your bees.

      Do you really think bee keeping is ‘over proliferating’ in Aus? I hadn’t thought of that. Though I guess that amongst our little subset of Aussies, a hive is becoming one of the ‘must-haves’ along with backyard chooks etc …

  5. Posted February 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Ah climate change…such a shock for vetrans of an area. We are always saying things like “in the old days the we had so many buckets of tomatoes we had to make into sauce we were over it” and ” you could grow a heap of onions/garlic/potatoes/sunflowers without irrigation “. Swamp drying up over the last 3 years , we have canoed on it for the 28 years we have been here till just recently. Now no standing water. Have to make it an elelction issue. Greens are the only ones with a plan as yet.

  6. Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Are there supplemental high pollen flowers we can grow to help the bees?

  7. Posted March 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I read this with interest and share on Late Bloomer Show Facebook page. I have a small urban garden and planted dill (hasn’t bloomed yet), milkweed and let the broccoli go to seed and the bees LOVE it. We have a Pittosporum tree (there are 200 types and I don’t know which one it is), but it is LOADED with flowers, and I can hear the bees from 25 feet away. It sounds like a thousand bees in there, a little intimidating to get too close. One bee flew into my face the other day and I batted it off, not sure if that was a warning or not. Many of the trees in So. California were imported from Australia. – Kaye

    http://www.youtube.com/user/kittrellkaye

  8. Inga Keegan
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    What a great write up! We have unfortunately had a very noticeable lack of bees here at Merriwa this spring and summer, some have only started to show over the last 4 or 5 days, needless to say there are lots of pumpkins and zucchinis, as well as rockmelons and watermelons here that have not pollinated very well at all. We’ve had a few native?? Black &white striped bees but none of the yellow & black ones! Any ideas? We have many crops nearby grown by surrounding farmers – could gm be an issue here?? Getting worried and am considering our own hives next year…………

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